The Roots Report: An Interview with Lewis Black

Okee dokee folks… I had the chance to talk with comedian Lewis Black the other day. Here is our conversation. Special thanks to Lori Mars for transcribing the interview!

John Fuzek: Hi, It’s John from Motif in Rhode Island.

Lewis Black: Oh, yes, Rhode Island.


JF: You say that kind of funny.

LB: Well, I’ve just been talking to Florida for the past few interviews.

JF: We’re not Florida and we have snow.

LB: I know you do!

JF: Are you in NY? What part?

LB: The real New York as opposed to the rest of it! I’m in the city … the rest of it’s a dream.

JF: So you have a show coming up on February 3 at The Providence Performing Arts Center. Is this going to be part of a tour you’re doing?

LB: I’ve been touring for 28 years, but the past 15 I’ve been doing small theaters. It’s never stopped. It’s an endless tour.

JF: Kind of like Bob Dylan?

LB: Except I don’t do as many dates as he does. I don’t know how he does it.

JF: If you can do it and you enjoy it, then that’s the important part.

LB: People think I’m crazy cause I do 110 dates. I have a tour bus so that helps and we’ll drive up from NY and go to Providence, Portland and Orono, Maine, and drive everywhere and get back on the bus and come back here.

JF: So, I’ve watched your comedy specials many times but I’ve never seen you live. I Googled you last night just to get a perspective. You came up second after Lewis and Clark, the explorers.

LB: That’s because there’s so few L-E-W-I-S s. Anyway, that’s nice to know. That shows where the culture is.

JF: I read something about you playing with Government Mule.

LB: I didn’t really play. They asked me to come out and do a bit with them. We were at Bonnaroo, and I know a couple of the guys in the band. Warren Haynes said we should do this and I said, “Sure!” So I just went out and the bit was that I said, “There are no words to this song. There are no words,” and walked off stage. In the meantime, somebody got upset that I was on stage and threw a plastic water bottle at me and it hit me. That was unbelievable.

JF: I mentioned that because I was wondering if you happened to be a musician as well.

LB: No, I wish. That would have been nice.

JF: OK, this may be out of left field but it’s something that I’ve wondered. I noticed that every time I see a Kathleen Madigan comedy special you are there and part of it. What’s your relationship with her?

LB: We’ve known each other forever.

JF: I notice that you have similar deliveries in your performances.

LB:  Wow, I’ll tell her that. I don’t notice that. It probably has to do with just being around each other. She seems to be faster than me!

JF: Did you mentor her … just friends … or …?

LB: Yeah, we’re just friends. We had a relationship for a while then it was just impossible. You’ve got two headliners wandering around the country you can’t really get together. But if she did a special she’d ask me to come out and open for her, which was great. I like hanging around. I certainly like watching other people work, especially her. If I do a special, she comes and watches. We have a mutual admiration society, we make each other laugh. Kathleen and I might do something together. It’s just a question of whether we can find the time. We’re talking about a radio show.

JF: I enjoy the work both of you do, and I’m actually very fussy about comedy nowadays because there are a lot of comedians that are like 12-year-old boys in high school that can’t get beyond a fart joke. There’s not a lot of depth to what they’re doing and comedians like yourself and Bill Maher and even Bill Burr to an extent actually have some substance. And it makes you think.

LB:Yeah, Burr. I like Bill!

JF: My personal view of comedians is that they’re kinda like the modern day philosophers and they let us know things that we need to know, but in a more comical way. I feel that you’re one of those people. Do you feel like you’re doing not only a comedic service, but a public service by awakening people to reality?

LB: I never really thought that. My hope is … I always feel odd if they applaud what I said and I didn’t get the laugh. Then, fuck … now I gotta think about what makes this funny. Your focus really is on entertaining people. Everything else is a plus. I gotta say that one of the first times I thought I was on — there were two times — one time George Carlin left a message on my machine saying that he liked my stuff. This is before anybody knew me. And i was like, OK then, cause if that’s as good as it gets that’s really fuckin’ it cause he’s someone I always had a tremendous admiration for and really learned from. The other was a farmer from somewhere early on. It was the second or third time I appeared in Vegas. An older guy told me, “You got a terrific philosophy.” I never thought of it that way and I don’t really think of it in that way unless I’m writing my books. Then i think of it in that way. But when I’m on stage I’m like, “What the fuck? There’s got to be a lamp here?”

JF: When George Carlin died, he did leave a gaping hole in this philosophical comedy stuff that makes you think. But you’ve dealt with issues, which I enjoy, and you do shine a light on them through comedy. A lot of what you say is very profound, which gets people to listen in a laughing way and hopefully it resonates later.

LB: Your basic hope is that the audience can step back from the madness and take a breath and go, “Tthat’s right, this IS bullshit. Why am I getting so tied in knots? This is nonsense.”

JF: I’m hoping that comedy will lead the upcoming revolution.

LB: Well, I said from the beginning, good luck with that. It’s gonna be hard getting people off the couch and away from their big TVs. I’ve always thought, “They’re crazy; we’re not crazy.” The stumbling block between them and us and something better is a group of fucking morons that get elected. And they continue to elect the same douchebags. And if they don’t do something about gerrymandering, it’s going to continue like this.

JF: I’ve read you tend to have a socialist angle. I’ve described you as a comic Bernie Sanders. Do you feel that way?

LB: I’m so much funnier than Bernie, but he was my hero. I watched Harvest of Shame when i was a kid. In DC, the worst slums were right behind congress. Back then, in history or civics books, they actually discussed the philosophy and idea of socialism. I was born and raised around Washington and Democrats and Republicans, and basically the only ones who wanted to deal with the problems that we face were the people who were socialists. By the time I was 15, I was done with the Democrats and Republicans. And I know full well we are not all going to become Socialists. I got it! I’m not a fucking moron. But I would like some of the ideas to filter into the goddamn society! The main sense of Socialism and the reason that I like it is because it’s like enforced Christianity.

JF: I agree wholeheartedly. The people who claim to be Christians are not. They are just greedy, crazy people who want to reinforce their prejudices with their religion.

LB: Right, but you’ve got that percentage of them that are actually real. It was interesting during that campaign was that whole group of evangelicals came out and said, “This is insane. Trump’s not our candidate.” There were a ton of them.

JF: And somehow he’s going to be our president. I am sure this will be fodder for you for the next four years.

LB: It will be and it will be exhausting. It’s hard to satirize what is already satiric. I mean, in a 24-hour span he tweets out about the intelligence agency and then he’s critical of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He should just go back and do the show. There’s a dignity to the office and he’s already demeaning it. You owe the office its dignity. I’m sorry, people can talk to me all they want about it. I was born and raised raised in DC. I have a real respect for government. You’re the president. You got a problem with narcissism, then see a psychiatrist.

JF: So this wagging the finger and having a meltdown on stage is part of your routine, but if you are sitting across from someone at a family dinner who is totally your polar opposite, do you go into this meltdown phase in real life?

LB: It’s within me and if I’m drinking it does comes out. If I am drinking and I am across from someone like that, I don’t hold back. Generally I try to find the point where we do agree ’cause I’m fascinated by the fact that these people can’t work their shit out. I have some friends who are majorly conservative and yet I can sit and talk to them and we can come to agreements on how we feel about things.

JF: That’s the rational and civilized way, but somehow in the past few years things have gotten so fractured that people who think differently can’t even communicate.

LB: Part of it is this transition from one age to the other. From whatever the age is — the industrial age to technological age — we are all of a sudden in our own bubble and the news bubble … the Fox bubble, MSNBC bubble, Breitbart bubble … you know, post-truth. Really? What the fuck are you talking about?

JF: So there is a lot fake news nowadays. Where do you get the news you listen to or judge things by? Do you just get a good cross-section or do you have one reliable source?

LB: I wake up and I read the NYTimes … well, parts of it. I spend lots more time on the Times Editorial section. They have a span of opinions and those people do a lot more research. I have friends who send me stuff. I haven’t quite figured out how to make the news feed work, so I am always behind and people say, “Did you just see that?” No, I don’t see the feed. I read The Week, which is pretty well balanced. What TV news should be. It’s a real good balance: Here’s the left’s opinion, here’s the middle’s opinion, here’s the right’s opinion. This is from The Nation, Slate, this is from whatever that fucking Republican thing … I can’t think of the name … Bill Crystal’s thing. You know, there’s a mix of that stuff. And then I read the NY Post. I’ve said forever it is the only paper who has the courage to print its own news. If you read the NY Post you say, “Well, that hasn’t happened,” and two weeks later it does. You know there could be a national catastrophe, but there are breasts or cleavage on the front page. I mean a city could be burning down and if it didn’t top whatever the nonsense is. I really read the NY Post for the sports section because they really are like psychotic. Every game play is like, “This is the best team ever.” And if they lose a game it’s like, “I always told you they were a piece of shit.” They’re really spectacular. It’s like that’s all there is in the world — sports. I kind of like that. Now that’s a bubble I can really enjoy. Phil Mushnick, who writes for them, follows all these sporting things and once or twice a week his column is — I can’t believe they said this, this is appalling — the glorification of ESPN and the violence and all of that. He’s like this crazed prophet.

JF: So this issue of Motif is the health issue. So, how is your health?

LB: Well, we’ll know on Monday. I get my physical so it’s a perfect time for you to call. And I know I will have perfect blood pressure cause I always do and I know that everything else is sort of rotting. I’ve stopped eating bread and pasta.

JF: Did you lose weight doing that?

LB: I did until these fucking festivals. You know, Christmas and New Year’s and the whole thing. In terms of my health, it was supposed to help. We’ll see. I’m high in triglycerides. My parents are both 98.

JF: Wow, really? I’ve seen them in the audience on your specials, but I didn’t want to ask because I knew that they were both up there in years.

LB: It’s great and it’s tough. Mother is starting to show the  signs of senility. She had a lightning mind. She’s conscious of it, so it’s tough. She’s still there 60% to 70% of the time. For a lot of them it’s the whole concept of stimulation. I think it makes a huge difference. My father retired at 55, but then he started painting. They were very active until Lily Bear was 92 or 93, and part of it was living in that assisted living situation where you go downstairs to do something. My father will go down there because he thinks it’s a good place to nap (we laugh). My mother is appalled by it, but for New Year’s she said, “First they don’t give us any wine. They give us apple juice with bubbles in it. There’s a guy there who THINKS he is singing like Sinatra.” You know, that kind of stuff.

JF:  I guess that can be pretty depressing.

LB: It’s really insulting. For a lot of them it’s fine, but for others it’s insulting. They are way beyond it. They stayed engaged for so long, I can’t get there as much, my friends can’t get there as much, they can’t travel as much. Now they’re there it’s like, Holy God. It’s sad and that’s the tough part. I think, looking at places like the Marriot Residences and those type of places, did they really build those places to convert into senior living places?

JF: So do you have any health suggestions for the readers?   You’re 68, your parents are 98…

LB: My father walked to work every day a mile each way. My mother did no major exercise, and can’t figure it out. She said, “Who’s supposed to live to 98?” It’s really tough to figure out what it was because my brother passed when he was 47. That was 22 years ago. That was tough on them and it was tough on me. So, the only health suggestion that I’ve got is don’t worry about your health. That will really help, okay? And the other thing is have the scoop of ice cream, but don’t have five scoops. How tough is that? It’s all about moderation, but just remember that summer’s coming and you can grill shit and eat like a pig.

JF: Do you have anything you’d like to add about the upcoming show at PPAC on February 3? What can people to expect?

LB: I expect to get on track about what the hell I’ll be talking about this year. I know I will be talking about mental health because that’s a real theme for us now. I don’t think we deal with it and what we’re all going through right now shows that we all may be losing our minds. If you go on lewisblack.com and you click on Lewis Black Live, I’ve done 170 live streams after my shows. I do the show and then I end it and then we immediately go live on the air and we go throughout the world. We have a satellite hook-up. We’ve been doing  it almost two years now, and you can watch this after any show. So, I’ll be on stage in Providence until 10pm then we go live at 10:05pm. If you are at home you can watch on your phone. I know people who watch in Germany, Kenya, it’s on Facebook Live. We do it live in front of the audience after the show ends. I have an iPad. The audience ask questions on their phones before the show starts. People know. It’s on every fucking platform that we’re doing this. They can send in their rants. I’ve read about a hundred or more rants from people. It gives a sense of what’s going on because it’s real people talking about real problems. Some are funny and some are not. We do this for about 20 minutes to half an hour. It’s been interesting; it’s been good. You know, I’m not going to have a TV show so this is it. It’s like a 1950s TV show with even less stuff. Basically the guest is the audience.

JF: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

LB: My pleasure and thank you very much. Very happy to talk to you. I’m thrilled to be part of the Health Issue!